"My name is Erica and I'm an alcoholic"
is not something I could imagine myself easily sharing, much less in front of rows--at least ten rows filled--within the confines of the St. Aloysius Catholic Church, much less to follow that statement with a personal speech interjected with casual fluency interspersed with shouts from the crowd. Yet it is what I witnessed alcoholics do this Saturday evening. As a medical student non-alcoholic observing the proceedings of an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, I was an outsider even before I stepped in. Crossing across the Harlem streets between Frederick Douglass St and 132nd St, I paused before the church with some uncertainty, before a man asked, 'Where you going, sweetie?" and as we both approached the entrance, I replied with awkward cheer, "here!"
|At the entrance|
Despite feeling rather out-of-place, I also felt a great sense of camaraderie in the crowd--so that rather than feeling like an uninvited stranger at an official meeting, I felt like a new acquaintance joining a close-knit group of friends, whose inside jokes went over my head. And rather than a therapy session in which I imagined myself as a wallflower, I found myself smiling and nodding along with the shared stories like a (somewhat-clueless) audience member at a comedy show.
For their stories were reminiscent of those from The Moth radio hour where members of the public share gripping personal tales with a receptive audience--they were fun, casual, personal; they elicited laughter and cheers from the crowd; they were told with flair and comedic effect. A man with a blazer and T-shirt went up in front of the crowd, half-grunting half-laughing, "I am certified NUTS!" (laughter from the crowd) "I know I'm crazy," and, referring to his alcoholism, "I know I gotta get out." He goes on, "Alcohol removes," and with dramatic pointing, "Table.... Leg... (laughter). Brain... Kidney... Liver." And a woman with camouflage cap and shirt announces in clear, stately tones, "If it weren't for AA, I wouldn't be here today."
The last speaker was celebrating her 14th Anniversary--that is to say, it was her 14th year as part of AA, and celebrated with candles and cake. She spoke with flair, spunk: "I was loud. I'm still loud. " And then, sincerely, "My baby teaches me to be better. You all teach me to be better." And, "Others help us see what we don't see in ourselves." As I approached her after the session, along with many others who expressed their congratulations, she turned to me with a bright smile and extended arms--"Are you new?"
I left with the feeling I get when I attend mass at a church and religion I don't "belong to," and why I attend in the first place: that the world is a better place, and can become a better place. That despite our differences, we all seek to be better. And that matters, for alcoholics and for me.